“I have often thought that nothing would do more extensive good at small expense than the establishment of a small circulating library in every county, to consist of a few well-chosen books, to be lent to the people of the country under regulations as would secure their safe return in due time.”
Thomas Jefferson – letter to John Wyche, 1809.
From one standpoint, public libraries seem like a small thorn in the side of embattled publishers. They account for a small percentage of book sales, but bleed off more sales by lending bestsellers promiscuously. Publishers, anxious to discover the next Fifty Shades or Hunger Games have little time for their nattering and would prefer that the current fight over eBook pricing quietly disappeared.
But there is another side to public libraries in America: they are dynamic, versatile community centers. They welcomed more than 1.59 billion visitors in 2009 and lent books 2.4 billion times – more than 8 times for each citizen. More than half of young adults and seniors living in poverty in the United States used public libraries to access the Internet. They used this access, among other purposes to “find work, apply to college, secure government benefits, and learn about critical medical treatments” For all this, public libraries cost just $42 per citizen each year to maintain.
The growth of electronic reading holds significant opportunities and threats for both public libraries and publishers. This is no small affair: new researchfrom the Pew Research Center shows that a third of Americans now own eBook readers or tablet devices, and Amazon sells more eBooks than print books.
Big six publishers limit public libraries’ access to eBooks at their own peril. They fail to see that public libraries are an integral part of the fragile ecosystem of reading in America. Without libraries to encourage new readers, foster book groups and promote communities of reading, publishers will find fewer readers for their biggest titles, and readers will have more difficulty discovering works not on the bestseller list.
Public libraries for their part have been slow to react to the dramatic changes in publishing and reading that threaten their ability to fulfill their core mission of promoting reading. By focusing too heavily on giving patrons access to bestsellers and popular movies, libraries risk missing the significant opportunity afforded by the explosion in the number of new books published each year.
This article is the second in a two-part series on libraries and their role in the marketing and readership of books. The first part focused on the current dispute between libraries and publishers. This article details the opportunities and obstacles for libraries in a changed world of publishing and reading.
Why Publishers Underestimate Libraries
Large publishers claim to embrace libraries, and they certainly have well-informed executives who do: just listen to Skip Dye, the VP of Academic and Library Sales and Marketing for Random House:
We see that the libraries have an important role for us. Libraries have a great influence. They go through the whole family and create a great sense of community through books. We’ve always thought that our role is to help the influencers influence.
The actions of the big six publishers tell a different story, however. Indeed, Random House itself increased the price of many bestsellers in eBook format – some to $84 or more. As a group, large publisher are wary of libraries, or at best ambivalent.
Publishers have some justification for their viewpoint. In 2009, public libraries accounted for just 1.3% of total book sales, down from 4.3% in 1989. Moreover, Pew research suggests that a third of library eBook patrons might have bought the books they are borrowing had they been unable to find it at the library. This almost certainly exaggerates the actual cannibalization of book sales by libraries (consumer marketers know that self reported purchase intent notoriously overstates actual purchase behavior), but cannibalization does occur.
With this understanding, it’s clear why large publishers might be ambivalent towards libraries. This narrow of view of public libraries misses an important dynamic, however. Like the humble starfish that preserves entire marine ecosystems by eating mussels, the American public library is the keystone species in the ecosystem of reading. Without public libraries to promote the culture of reading and build communities of interconnected readers, publishers would face a diminished market for their titles. Indeed, the fact that reading remains a vibrant part of American cultural life is somewhat startling in the face of the competition for consumers’ attention: movies, video games, television, online shopping, browsing and social networking.
Moreover, large publishers face a world that is changing in ways that will make public libraries ever more important to them. The power of big publishers is threatened by Amazon, which depresses margins and promotes self-published authors who routinely underprice the market. At the same time, the number of bookstores is declining – there were 10,800 in 2012 versus 12,363 in 1997. This makes it harder for publishers to develop new authors and new genres. Libraries can help with this – if only they would.
Libraries Need To Rethink Their Acquisitions Strategy
Find out what they like, and how they like it, and let him have it just that way. Give them what they want, and when they want it, without a single word to say
Public libraries risk missing the opportunities of an important trend: the explosion of published books. Back in 1950, there were just 11,022 titles published. In 2010, 328,259 titles were brought to market.
According to the Public Library Inquiry, libraries serving populations of 100,000 or more purchased an average 48,000 books in 1948 – enough to buy over 4 copies of every one of the 11,000 titles published in that year.
Steve Coffman, Library Support Services, Inc. (quoted from a forthcoming article Coffman provided to me)
By 2010, however, the situation had dramatically changed. In 2010, there were over 300,000 titles published, but the average library could buy only 21,000 of them.
Public libraries are still pursuing an acquisitions philosophy that is guided by a reality from the 1950’s. When libraries could buy everything, individual libraries could curate the entire opus of the publishing industry and help consumers get what they wanted. The need for libraries to discover new books was minimal, because everyone knew what the new books were, and publications like The Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly could review most of the important books. The bigger issue was access. UnderCharlie Robinson, the Baltimore County Public Library system adopted the philosophy of “Give ‘Em What They Want.” They focused on providing increased numbers of the most popular titles to patrons – and this philosophy eventually expanded to include tapes and DVDs. The benefit to libraries was increased circulation. At one point circulation numbers of the Baltimore County Public Library were topped only by the New York and the Los Angeles public library systems.
The benefit of this strategy is that it helped build loyalty to libraries among adult readers. The problem is that by focusing on books that patrons already wanted, libraries de-emphasized their important role in the discovery of new books.
“Libraries have not made the point that we can be an important piece in the discovery process,” Coffman told me. And while libraries have long perceived themselves as the “place to get great book recommendations” this mission has always been accomplished on a library-by-library basis. Today, the number of titles published is too great to make such ad hoc efforts effective.
Terry Kirchner, the Executive Director of the Westchester County Public Library System worries that libraries will try to mimic their traditional roles as the eBook world explodes, “I’m a little nervous about a model that’s going to trap us where we are now in print: as a storage repository.”
The Future: Public Libraries as Local Centers For Book Discovery
Libraries support three core missions: promoting reading, offering access to information and anchoring communities. Although individual library systems may communicate these priorities differently, most of the librarians I interviewed broadly agreed with these goals. All three missions contribute to make a library of the twenty first century the ideal place to discover new books.
Meeting space has also become a big selling point for libraries. Ginnie Cooper – head of the DC Public Libraries has overseen the renovation of 14 libraries over the past few years. “There are twenty meetings a week at any given public library. Our libraries are places of contact, community and pride.” Cooper also pointed to Mary Dempsey in Chicago who was the architect of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s strategy to rejuvenate neighborhoods by adding public parks and libraries. Dempsey presided over the building of over forty new library branches in Chicago, and told a gathering at an American Library Association annual meeting,
I’ve purchased and knocked down more liquor stores, more no-tell motels, more really crummy and dilapidated, burned-out buildings in neighborhood after neighborhood and replaced them with libraries than I’d ever thought I’d do in my life.
The new role of libraries as de facto community centers has had practical implications for library renovations as well. “We learned that the community room has to be accessible when the library is closed,” Sari Feldman, executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library system in Ohio. “There are a lot of meeting spaces. The space for physical books has decreased. We don’t use high stacks anymore.” Tracy Strobel, the deputy director of the library explains how the library links these meeting areas to impulse book borrowing:
When you come into our library we don’t want you to be able to leave without borrowing. Our greatest compliment is when someone comes in for a neighborhood block watch meeting and leaves with an armload of books that they can’t pass up. That’s all merchandising.
Indeed, librarians have long known what book superstores discovered in the 1980’s: the “recommended reading” tables near the entrance to the store, often grouped topically, generated much more book sales than stacks and stacks of spine-out titles. As libraries become more meeting oriented and less of a warehouse for books, they will be able to merchandise books more effectively. Steve Coffman points out that unlike bookstores, libraries are happy to be “show roomed” – to have patrons browse a book in the library but buy it online instead:
Merchandising is a major opportunity for libraries. If we do it well, it’s likely to pay off very handsomely in terms of what people get out of these buildings. Let’s make it easy for someone who finds something in the library to put it in their e-reader – or to buy it online! Let’s turn libraries into book centers.
When libraries become book centers, they will think more about their reciprocal ties to publishers large and small. Libraries have long hosted book groups, but few publishers currently provide advanced copies of novels to book groups through libraries. When publishers understand the marketing opportunities afforded to them by the transformation of libraries into community hubs, they’ll fight for space on the display shelves and the mindshare of the readers.
Providing Access to Information – Since the advent of the information age, libraries have provided public access to online information. With the growth of the Internet in the late 1990’s, many libraries added computers to allow patrons to get online. Over the past several years, the vast majority of public libraries are helping their communities bridge the digital divide by providing free broadband Wi-Fi access.
A 2010 report from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences sponsored by the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation details the critical role of libraries in providing access to Americans living below the poverty line:
Overall, 44 percent of people in households living below the federal poverty line ($22,000 a year for a family of four) used public library computers and Internet access. Among young adults (14–24 years of age) in households below the federal poverty line, 61 percent used public library computers and Internet for educational purposes. Among seniors (65 and older) living in poverty, 54 percent used public library computers for health or wellness needs.
Susan Benton, CEO of the Urban Libraries Council adds,
Libraries are economic engines for communities, helping people find jobs and gain the skills they need to get ahead in their careers. The Chicago Public Library system found that 60 percent of the people using the Internet in their branches were applying for or seeking information about jobs.
The digital divide is real, and the economic downturn hurt many working-class families, forcing them to reduce expenses on luxury items like high-speed Internet access. These patrons can still discover and promote new books even when they are not direct purchasers. As reading transitions to eBooks, libraries are well equipped to help patrons understand and get the most from this technology.
Can Libraries Escape A Technology Trap?
For consumers, using eReaders is a freeing experience. eBooks are easy to buy, less expensive and easier to collect on an eReader. None of these things are true for libraries, however.
The software for lending eBooks to library patrons ranges from inconvenient to archaic, catalogues are not integrated with library catalogs, eBooks are much more expensive or restrictive for libraries to obtain and the entire catalog of a library’s licensed eBooks may be proprietary to a single technology provider.
Overdrive, founded in 1986 by Steve Potash was long the sole provider of eBooks to libraries through its eBook platform. Now 3M and Baker & Taylor also offer eBook platforms. Each of these companies uses proprietary software to lend books to library patrons. While they provide a valuable service, there are problems. First their systems are not compatible (unlike Adobe’s digital rights standard format – the EPUB file). Secondly, Overdrive’s licensing agreements do not give library customers eBook rights outside of its platform. If this sounds like a minor issue, it’s not.
Jo Budler, who was just named “Librarian of the Year” for 2013 by Library Journal learned this the hard way. Budler
realized that an initial proposal in 2010 to renew the Kansas State Library (KSL) contract with OverDrive would increase administrative costs by some 700 percent over the next few years, as the state ebook deal was being restructured. Despite the risk of disrupting and even losing access to ebooks for the users of Kansas libraries, Budler rejected more than one proposal from OverDrive for a new contract until a year ago when she won the right to transfer titles from OverDrive to a new platform.
I spoke with Potash at Overdrive who insisted that the migration issues were created by publisher licensing agreements rather than by Overdrive itself. Matt Tempelis at 3M (one of the vendors that KSL adopted after leaving Overdrive) pointedly told me that 3M has worked with publishers to set a different standard for migration than Overdrive:
3M sees an eBook as a software license. 3M believes that a library owns the license under the terms of the license. We will accept titles purchased from another platform and ensure that they can activate the titles in the 3M systems. If our libraries want to move to a competitive platform, we will support that.
3M’s position is helpful, although it’s not all that surprising for a new entrant to be flexible in a category long dominated by Overdrive. Regardless, though, the biggest issue for libraries is that technology has increased the costs to lend eBooks to patrons above the cost of lending physical books – an odd and unhelpful inversion.
As I pointed out in my first article, libraries are licensing eBooks rather than buying them. But publishers still sell eBooks as if they’re a single copy of the print edition. The combination of a license made to resemble a book purchase with license terms that may cause libraries to lose access to their licensed books is a big red flag. Most libraries are probably not worried today, because eBook lending is small – rarely over 5% of all circulation (7% in Douglas County). This number may grow quickly as reading habits evolve, however. If libraries don’t find a way out of this technology trap, they’ll find themselves limited in their ability to meet the needs of their next generation of patrons.
One Solution – Open Source and the Digital Public Library of America
Under Jamie LaRue, the Douglas County library system has worked hard to be less dependent on technology providers. The library paid $10,000 for an Adobe content server license (which also costs $1500 a year for maintenance and 8 cents per book). They then hired a programmer to create open source software to allow the library to integrate the Adobe system with their existing catalogues. Having the secure Adobe system allows Douglas County to negotiate directly with publishers. It hasn’t been an easy road, says LaRue,
I was on the phone with someone from Simon & Schuster and said ‘I will sign a check today for $250,000 to buy and host electronic content from you. Let’s be partners.’ He said no.
The Kansas State Library is implementing a multi-vendor system to try to avoid some of the perils it encountered when tied solely to Overdrive. Making this kind of program work requires either significant software integration work or pleading for the tolerance of library patrons asked to use different systems to borrow books. It’s not an ideal solution.
Having good technology infrastructure is critical to the library’s ability to provide a full range of services. The more our patrons are digital natives the more important this will be.
She pointed to the Digital Public Library of America – a project that grew out of a meeting at the Radcliffe institute in 2010 and now includes 40 different foundations, research institutions, governments and libraries. The goal is to create a single, comprehensive digital library to allow access to both public domain and copyrighted material online. The entire project will use open source software. Many of the works that the Digital Public Library will provide access to already exist online, but they are often found in silos that may be difficult to locate or access.
One of the great strengths and weaknesses of the current library systems in America is that they are individual and local. They are exceptionally good at serving the individual needs of their patrons and communities. But their capacity for collective action is limited. In a digital world, the concept of individual libraries negotiating for digital rights to works with publishers is inefficient. Libraries lose the advantage of scale. Although advocacy groups like the ALA can bring some pressure to bear on publishers, it’s not the same as collective purchasing agreements. Technology providers, sitting between libraries and publishers have less incentive to negotiate as they represent the interests of both parties.
The Digital Public Library model is critical to the future of libraries for three reasons:
- Simplicity – A single interface with open source software that will allow for full integration with existing online library catalogues will dramatically improve the user experience for library patrons.
- Universal Access – having a single point of access to all titles takes the both the technology and the archival burden off of individual libraries. The Digital Public Library project will provide consistent metadata, full text searching and standardized digital rights management for all copyrighted titles.
- Group Purchasing – The Digital Public Library will allow libraries to use their combined purchasing power to negotiate a single price for eBook lending with publishers.
This project is still some way from being functional – the operational work will not begin until April of this year. But many prestigious organizations support the project operationally and financially. Although the aims of the Digital Public Library stretch far beyond the needs of local public library systems, the project is the best hope for public libraries to avoid proprietary lending systems and to ultimately reduce the delivered circulation cost of eBooks to be competitive with or below the cost of printed titles.
eBooks are both a blessing and a curse to readers. They are cheaper and more portable than physical books. But it is astonishingly difficult to reliably find good things to read outside of the bestseller lists. Online reviews are notoriously unreliable and unlike movies, where Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes serve to consolidate critical reviews of a single work, no such service exists for books. Adding to the difficulty, a significant percentage of eBooks are so-called “indie” books: self-published or published by a very small press.
It would be easy to ignore these books if they resembled the vanity press works of previous years. Some do, but others do not. Publisher’s Weekly estimatesthat fifteen of the 100 bestselling books of 2012 were self-published. Beyond the predictable romance and thriller novels there are surprising works, likeWool by Hugh Howey, a novella that has won critical acclaim as well as a film option from Ridley Scott.
The biggest problem for libraries right now is that they do not have access to these works as eBooks. Saira Rao, co-founder of indie publishing house In This Together Media whose youth title “Soccer Sisters” by Andrea Montalbano has been featured on the Today Show explains:
When we tried to get into Overdrive they said they really only consider publishers with at least 25 titles. So small, indie publishers like us who really value librarians for word-of-mouth – and self-published authors–are de facto boxed out.
When I pressed Rao on the value of libraries she said that she and most small publishers and authors would be happy to donate copies of their eBooks to libraries if that were possible. While Overdrive told me that they work with some self-published authors and 3M has inked a deal with Smashwords, neither platform has access to either Andrea Montalbano’s eBook or Hugh Howey’s. When I asked Hugh Howey whether he’d give free copies of Wool to libraries, he was even more direct:
I learned something interesting from the Kindle Lending Library and digital pirates, two admittedly quite different sources. What I learned is that free copies lead to sales. If your works are priced appropriately, and you gain a fan through free, they’ll often purchase a legitimate copy as well. Libraries are amazing institutions for authors as well as readers. They provide exposure. They give curious minds a place to sample outside of their comfort zone. I would absolutely give libraries a free copy of Wool.
This is a major oversight but one that libraries can quickly remedy. Current eBook providers are customer driven and if 3M and Overdrive begin hearing from multiple libraries that they want access to a broader selection of indie press and self-published titles they will most likely get it. That’s a hint.
The bigger problem by far – and the one that offers the biggest opportunity for libraries is the question of discovering indie books that don’t land on the Today Show or the New York Times Bestseller list.
Libraries Should Cooperate To Discover Great Books
The second problem with Indie books is that there are so many of them. Bowker estimates that over 235,000 books and ebooks were self-published in 2012 alone. This number is growing quickly and even in print alone, self-published books accounted for 43% of the total publishing output in 2011.
Those numbers are astonishing (harken back to the 11,000 books published in 1950), and their magnitude explains why eBook users have difficulty finding the next book to read. Once we abandon the bookstore for the virtual world we find that it is a primeval forest, dangerous and uninviting, replete with frauds and scams looking to scrape a quick buck off of unsuspecting readers. There are a few sites like Goodreads and Indie Reader that offer alternatives to the untrustworthy online review, but for the ordinary reader, there is no single source available to sort the diamonds from the coal.
Now let’s do some simple math: there are 16,000 library buildings in the United States. If each library were to review just one unique book a month, as a group they would cover 192,000 titles in a year. That’s 58% of the total books published for 2010. Many of these books could be reviewed quickly: they are poorly written, unedited and lacking any redeeming virtues. Perhaps one in ten would be worthy of a detailed review. Yet if each library discovered just one interesting book a year – and shared that result with other libraries who could review and rate those interesting books there would be 16,000 interesting books for libraries to review. If we assume that just one in one hundred of those reviewed books are “great” libraries would still have discovered 160 great new books to recommend to library patrons each year.
None of this requires more work than libraries do today. Librarians routinely read books just for the purpose of deciding whether to recommend them to patrons. But the process is ad hoc: it’s done on a library-by-library or system-by-system basis. There is no coordination. But such coordination would not be difficult to arrange, nor would it require a mandate or any significant funding. It would just require a website with a list of new titles and links accessible only to real people working in real libraries.
The benefits of cooperating to evaluate a meaningful portion of the opus of American publishing would be tremendous. Libraries are the most trusted source of book recommendations, as they have no financial interest in the result of the recommendation. If libraries start discovering new authors, publishers will pay much keener attention to them. The current paradigm of publishers who reluctantly sell libraries eBooks will reverse. Publishers will treat libraries at least as well as book bloggers and copies of new works will be distributed for free.
The opportunities and challenges for libraries in the new millennium seem vast, but Ginnie Cooper at the DC Public Libraries reminded me that they’ve seen it all before:
There was a time when libraries did not buy paperbacks.
Cooper is correct. The paperback changed everything. The first paperbackprinted in the U.S. was an edition of The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck printed by Pocket Books in 1938. By the 1950’s, the low cost of paperback books had created such a boom of sales that LeBaron R. Barker of Doubleday, stated that paperbacks would “undermine the whole structure of publishing.”
The low cost of the paperbacks undercut the popularity of pulp magazines and as a result, many popular pulp authors had the previously unthinkable opportunity to become book authors. Among them were:
Edgar Rice Burroughs
Philip K. Dick
Let us hope that we’ve truly seen this all before.
NOTE: This article is part 2 of a two-part series.